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Reducing dependence on oil: A new look at electric cars

How'd you like this car: A stunningly beautiful roadster that will zoom from 0 to 60 mph in a neck-snapping 4 seconds (take that, Ferrari!), has a 130 mph top speed, delivers the equivalent of 135 miles per gallon, never stops at a gasoline pump, goes 250 miles on a “fill-up,” and has an operating cost of 2 cents per mile?

Well, chances are you can't have one.

The 600 Tesla all-electric cars ( planned for production in 2008 are already spoken for by assorted movie stars and other luminaries. But you just might be able to plunk down a $5,000 deposit on one of the 1,800 planned for 2009 — at about $100,000 a pop.

With that lofty price tag, the Tesla obviously isn't going to be a mass market vehicle. But the company is already planning a sedan for around $50,000.

And it does demonstrate that entrepreneurship is alive and well, and that there are people (in this case a couple of Silicon Valley guys and some venture capitalists) willing to commit money, research, and know-how toward lessening our dependence on imported oil — something at which our government and the major auto companies have been woefully inept.

Despite 30-plus years of hand-wringing over escalating oil prices, uncertain supply, and countless billions of taxpayer dollars spent on alternative fuel programs that have accomplished virtually nothing, the U.S. is more than ever shackled to Big Oil.

However inspiring the thought of growing our own fuel, the reality is that there isn't enough acreage in the entire U.S. to grow enough corn, switchgrass, soybeans, whatever, to brew enough ethanol and biodiesel to make more than a small dent in our fuel demand.

Ethanol may well serve an ongoing role as a gasoline additive while the Petroleum Age plays out, but the likelihood that Big Oil and/or the government will commit untold billions to an infrastructure to support E-85 pumps at every convenience store and gas station is extremely remote. Ditto for biodiesel.

While Joe Average may not spring for a $100,000 Tesla electric sports car, he might very well pay a third that much for the snazzy Chevrolet Volt sedan, which GM says it will launch in 2010.

The Volt is expected to travel 40-60 miles (the average U.S. daily commute is 20 miles) on electric power alone (the equivalent of 150 mpg). Beyond that, a three-cylinder internal combustion engine kicks in to replenish the batteries.

Toyota, Honda, and other manufacturers also have electric cars, or advanced mostly-electric hybrids in development that they expect to market within a few years.

Electric vehicles aren't new — GM made several hundred for lease in 1999. Users loved them, but GM later scrapped the program, took them back, and destroyed them.

The major drawback for electric vehicles has been limitations of battery technology, but those problems are rapidly being resolved.

An electric vehicle won't fit everyone's needs, of course. But if just half the daily commutes in this country were in electric vehicles, the reduction in demand for oil would be substantial.

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